Friday, April 6, 2007

Have Festivals become too commercial ??

As Easter or any other festival arrives and the malls get decked out months in advance, a debate starts about whether festivals today are getting increasingly commercialized taking away from their "piety" or "old-worldly charm".

I think the phrase "Has Easter become too commercial ?" is an oxymoron since trade and commerce are part of any festival and have been through the ages.

Most festivals originated from the need of human beings to congregate and celebrate season changes (the solstices and the equinoxes) ; crop or herd cycles (planting time, harvesting time, birthing time etc); or rites of passage within the tribe/community (birth, puberty, marriage, death). As people congregated the traders also followed providing the food, clothing, celebratory accompaniments etc. required for the festivities.

These festivals also provided an opportunity for the wealth which had been hoarded by the community to tide over bad days to be brought into circulation again. Society was quick to realize the benefits this circulation of money brought about and the opportunities festivals offered for trades people to sell their wares to a broader populace than what they could ordinarily do. Trade brought prosperity to the communities and allowed the transition from herding/gathering to a more settled life subsequently leading to the city states which aggregated/transformed into the modern nations.

As religions emerged, major religious events also tended to occur around these festival times since those were the times when large number of people had congregated together. The trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ during Passover celebrations or the founding of the Khalsa Panth in the Sikh Religion during the Baiaskhi festival are two examples which prove the point.

This resulted in the symbiotic relationship which exists between trade/commerce and festivals. Trade gains from the increased revenues brought about during the festivals while the festivals gain from the contributions trades people make to religious and social causes. The increased commercial activity in the marketplace represented by decorations, increased product offerings and displays, trade events etc adds to the festivity and also makes the festival meaningful and enjoyable for people who may not be part of the religious tradition to which the festival belongs.

That is why Christmas in the US or Diwali in India or Eid in the Middle East can transcend religious boundaries to become festivals for all people. If the festivals were confined to the church/temple or mosque alone they cannot be the joyous occasions for all , trade & commerce have helped them to be.

In some cases Trade has actually created festivals which did not exist earlier e.g. Mothers day, Father's day etc. But once again they fulfilled a need for publicly expressing emotions which wss getting missed out in the absence of a formal festival.

Throughout the ages there have also been strong undercurrents against the trading class or "money" in general. Tradespeople have generally been placed behind the priestly and warrior classes in hierarchical societies. A perception has been created that one cannot be making money and be pious at the same time which has been extended to the logic that if a festival is becoming "commercial" it is becoming less "holy". I do not subscribe to that logic.

The increased commerce is also a manifestation of the concept of free enterprise on which our economy is founded. No seller would make/sell a product unless someone is willing to buy it. People are not just buying Easter stuff because it is out there. Rather the stuff is being made and sold because the buyers have a need for those products which the sellers are fulfilling. The concept of personal responsibility needs to extend here too- if the people don't need something they should not buy it.

So I believe, trade and commerce are as much part of Easter as they are of any other festival . They make the festival more meaningful and do not in anyway detract from its meaning. What do you think ?


Jaidev said...

Nicely written article. I spent this Easter weekend in the UK and I could quickly relate to what the writer was saying (same with the many Diwalis celebrated in India). However, the issue of 'personal responsibility' and 'if people don't need something they should not buy it' flies in the face of unfettered consumerism of today. 'Personal Responsibility' is a normative thing and exists only with a very small segment of the population and is almost forgotten. Today's credo is 'live it up, even if you can't pay for it now'.

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